Irresponsible innocents abroad or courageous citizen journalists? A trip by six young French bloggers to the revolution in Libya turned to tragedy after one was left paralyzed by a stray bullet in the shell-shocked city of Misrata.
“We didn’t come here to cover a war, we just wanted to see a revolution like the one in Tunisia,” one of the bloggers told reporters on Friday at a press conference, saying that they had expected the revolt to come to a swift end with the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
The four men and two women traveled by boat late in March to Misrata, where fighting quickly intensified after Qaddafi’s forces launched a deadly crackdown on protests inspired by regime--changing movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
The bloggers, aged between 24 and 26 who had met while studying in the northwestern French city of Rennes, decided to stay on to bear witness to the conflict because they said initially so few foreign reporters were in the city.
For weeks they posted video images on the Internet and filed blogs and reports to the French news Web site Rue89 about Misrata, where hundreds have died since Qaddafi forces laid siege to it nearly two months ago.
However, a week ago, one blogger, Baptiste Dubonnet, was struck down by a stray bullet.
Attacks on Misrata’s strategic port delayed his evacuation from the besieged city for several days and it was not until Thursday that he arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi after a 17-hour sea trip in an intensive care unit equipped by a specialized medical team organized by French authorities.
Dubonnet, who the bloggers said was from the city of Lyon, is being treated in a Benghazi hospital where medics said he was paralyzed from the chest down and is in a critical, but stable, state.
His colleagues, who refused to give their names at the press conference which they illustrated with a PowerPoint presentation of images of the suffering of the people of Misrata, said they had no regrets about coming to Libya.
Asked if it was irresponsible to stay in a conflict zone without medical insurance, without any training for such situations and with none of them able to speak Arabic, one female blogger said: “I don’t think so.”
However, a Western security expert looking after staff with an international media company in Libya expressed disbelief at the the French bloggers’ actions.
“That’s madness,” he said on condition of anonymity. “It’s a case of individuals who have no hostile environment training or battle experience in any theater going into an area that is well publicized as high risk.”
News agencies, major foreign newspapers and broadcasters have been sending journalists to Misrata typically for stints of a week or two and sometimes with security advisers.
Two veteran war photographers, American Chris Hondros and Briton Tim Hetherington, died in the city after being hit in a mortar round, which also wounded two of their colleagues.
However, Ned Parker, who has covered the Iraq conflict since it began in 2003 and who this weekend left Misrata after several weeks there as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, praised Dubonnet.
“He is a courageous journalist. He was chasing a story in the best journalistic tradition. He was shot by a stray bullet. It could have happened to anyone,” he said.